Is there merit in merit in the gender equality debate?

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Is there merit in merit in the gender equality debate?

Friday, 9 June 2017

Lorraine Jokovicby Lorraine Jokovic, CEO, Loud

Looking around at today's Legends and Leaders 'Status Quota' debate at Vivid, it seemed I was one of, if not THE, most senior women in the room, and indeed the industry. And, as an owner of an agency that employs a wonderful balance of genders and the mother of a talented young woman who has just started her career in the creative industry, this subject is very real and close to my heart.

It’s real in terms of the impact on our industry, our reputation, our productivity and our performance. It’s real in terms of the people it impacts.

Given we are a creative industry and we are supposed to lead cultural change, imagine what our future will look like if we don’t get this right?

Our pro-quota opposition in the debate would have us believe that unconscious bias is so inherent that its impossible to change attitudes. And, that the pressure of time means we need to do something now.

Our pro-merit team, on the other hand, argued that we need to take the time to get this right. If we don’t shift attitudes then we’ll still be discussing this in decades to come.

It’s clear that the BEST way to achieve gender diversity is not through quotas. Quotas are a token solution to a complex problem.

Our first speaker spoke about the devastating impact quotas could have on the success of the individual placed in these roles. Imagine the impact on their credibility, their struggle to prove themselves?

Imagine putting this roadblock in front of someone who is perfectly qualified for the role? Then imagine the impact on the business, its performance and most importantly, its people?

And what about quotas for single level jobs such as the CEO or ECD?

How could that work; would a woman get the job when a man left? And vice versa? Imagine the impact on morale, collaboration and staff retention? And, again the impact on business, performance and people?

Today we also touched on the affect unconscious bias has on meritocracy and the different approaches of the genders. Remember the HBR report that informs us men will apply for a role when they meet 60% of the criteria but women will wait until they meet 100%? And that women lose their voice when it comes to asking to be paid what they’re worth, whereas men will aim for far more than they are worth? These are complex problems that require more than the token solution of quotas.

Our team also spoke about quotas not tackling the myriad of root-cause problems, but actually creating more. There are complex issues that require deep thinking, such as:

  • Workplace flexibility so that family demands can be managed
  • Equal pay
  • Male dominated cultures
  • Female mentors
  • Valuing different management styles – potential/experience
  • Sidelining the best candidate by appointing people on gender not merit
  • And the battle for a woman to be credited with earning a role rather than being appointed because of quotas

We can look at some of the learnings from the early adopters of gender quotas - Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway:

  • Neutral or negative results for women’s advancement
  • Neutral or negative results for company performance
  • There was no improvement to women’s pay
  • In Norway, 20% of the companies required to comply with gender quotas changed their structure to circumvent the new legislation
  • Share prices dropped 3.5% after the legislation was announced.

My debate team and I wholeheartedly support gender diversity. But that diversity will only be achieved when:

  • Both genders are recognised and rewarded in parity
  • Merit is fair and balanced
  • Unconscious bias is called out and derided in the same manner as implicit bias
  • Workplace flexibility supports all family needs
  • Corporate culture has no gender
  • Targets become the way we are challenged and become accountable 

These are multilayered, complex problems for which quotas are a token solution.

And, when we get this right it won't be by changing one word in a sentence from: “I didn’t get the job because I am a woman" to "I did get the job because I’m a woman” - but because we created genuine change. Then, the sentence becomes, “I got the job because they saw the merit I bring to the table.”

Lorraine Jokovic is also chair of The Communications Council's Diversity Group. Click here for more information.